Friday, March 30, 2007

Ready for some negative liberty

... which will feel immensely positive. Just shutting down and completing some final tasks as I head off for Easter in Greece. Spring is absolutely gorgeous there with cold nights and warm days, fresh green leaves and wild flowers everywhere. Two weeks of freedom - to read, walk, drink copious quantities of loose wine, eat at Sakis and Soula's taverna, and share an Easter feast with friends. Fantasy beats reality hands down. Posting may be infrequent.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

If ...

Blood and Treasure asks what would have happened if New Labour had been in power in 1807:

Naturally, things can’t be allowed to go on as before. But we must not be tempted by the simplistic solutions embraced by extremists on the other side. No. What we need to do here is bring all the stakeholders together and set out a course that is both radical and realistic. What we need is a one stop shop for slave regulation. ...

Read the rest here.

(Via Tim Worstall with thanks to Steve)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

History and modern Greece

Norm has linked to an article by Andrew Apostolou about the failure of the Greek state to recognise the actions of collaborators during the dispossession, deportation and eventual murder of the ancient Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

Apostolou makes a comparison with Belgium and its panel of enquiry into war-time collaboration and the Holocaust, which reported this year. This is not altogether fair as post-war Greece did not relapse into peaceful prosperity at the centre of the European Union, but bloody civil war and the triumph of the right, to be followed by a period of military dictatorship, democracy only being restored in 1974. Modern Greek history is troubled by more than the occupation. However, the point is an important one for a country that now has a secure democracy.

I cannot read Greek so the only sources available to me are ones in English but I think that the signs are positive, not least due to Apostolou's own research. There is an awakening of interest in the period of Turkish rule and any study of Ottoman Greece must include the Jewish community. I am currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Mark Mazower's superb history, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, a study that spreads from the Byzantines to the 1950's. And, as I type this, I can look up and see in my CD collection the brilliant recording of Sephardic Ladino folk songs by the wonderful Greek singer Savina Yannatou, Spring in Salonika (Άνοιζη στι Σαλονίκι), celebrating the lost Jewish culture and language (available for download, though I recommend searching out the CD with its multi-lingual booklet).

I am an optimist, and I feel that once historians and artists tread a path, journalists, politicians and the public will eventually follow.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Earlier tonight I watched Dispatches on Channel 4 and I actually agreed with Peter Hitchens.

Yes, I too believe that the Tory party should not be led by a media savvy opportunist who might get elected. He is right; they should be led by an unelectable right wing ideologue. I think I need a drink to recover.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Churchill and anti-Semitism - yet again

Thanks are due to Dr Hiding Pup for drawing my attention to Richard Toye's detailed defence of the provenance of the anti-Semitic article supposedly written by Winston Churchill, which I posted on earlier. Toye is the author of a new book, Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness. His major critic is Martin Gilbert, not only the official biographer of Churchill but author of several books on Jewish history and of the forthcoming Churchill and the Jews. The Churchill bibliographer, Richard M Langworth, has also written to defend Gilbert's position, that Churchill refuted and prevented the publication of the article, the product of a ghostwriter, Adam Marshall Diston, whom most of the press reports link to Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. This is disingenuous as Diston stood as a candidate for Mosley's ill-fated New Party, rather than the BUF. The New Party was formed by Mosley as a Keynesian opposition to MacDonald's economic orthodoxy and was disbanded by him when he converted to Fascism after a visit to Mussolini's Italy.

The Mosley connection is a convenient way of discrediting Diston and shifting the attention from Churchill, but regardless of the provenance of the document, which I am in no way in a position to speculate on, I am still uneasy at its use. A single document like this may provide an insight into anti-Semitic discourses, but it is hard to see how it could counter a much longer record of pro-Zionism, Jewish friendships and opposition to anti-Semitism. A single article, however contentious, should not distract from a broader historical record.

History is complex and casual anti-Semitism was ubiquitous amongst elite circles and was inevitably reflected in a range of contemporary discourses. That Churchill was capable of echoing the prejudices of his class is unsurprising. That these isolated instances amounted to anything significant is dubious, but they certainly make for an interesting spat.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Between a rock and a hard place

If you doubt the corrosive effect of simplistic ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric read this,

“Angola will do everything in its power to help the Zimbabwe police force and will not allow western imperialism to take over Zimbabwe”

And if you doubt the corrosive effect of appeasing racism at home read this,

When Tendayi Goneso fled Zimbabwe fearing death at the hands of Robert Mugabe's brutal henchmen, he thought Britain would offer him sanctuary from the violence tearing his country apart.

He grieved alone when his wife was murdered by the regime, and has endured four years apart from his three children.

In exile the 34-year-old accountant, who is recovering from lung cancer, has become a leading campaigner for democracy and the overthrow of Mr Mugabe.

But as the political situation in Zimbabwe has spiralled toward chaos, the British government has withdrawn his benefits and left him with the threat of deportation hanging over his head.

(via The Wrap)

The great Torygraph swindle

Just back from Hull's Old Town. A friend had, in a fit of insanity and a determination to get a bargain, been reading the Telegraph. They have a promotion on, vouchers with £1 off pints of real ale in selected pubs. So off we trotted, vouchers in hand. The trouble is, the pubs had either not heard of the scheme or hadn't been sent the wherewithal to redeem the vouchers.

We were left with no option but to drink several pints of excellent beer in some of the most historic pubs in the country.

The Olde White Hart

and the Black Boy
Tragic - I know you will feel for us.

(With thanks to Doll for the idea for the post)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Now that's what I call a CV

For anyone out there who gets tired of false modesty, try this from Prospect magazine,

New York university requires all applicants from high school to answer the following question: "Are there any significant experiences you've had, or accomplishments you have realised, that have helped to define you as a person?" ... the reply of one applicant found its way into cyberspace, where, in the US, it has now acquired a mini-cult status:

"I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees. I write award winning operas. I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing. I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook 30-minute brownies in 20 minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru. Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello. ...

Read the rest here

(Thanks to Steve)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Blessed relief

I am delighted to able to report that it has now been proved that disposable nappies are not the work of the devil. There are a few more dodgy products out there though. Read more here.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

What a waste of money?

Whilst we are on the subject of numbers, The Observer reports,

A damning report by the highly respected health think-tank, the King's Fund, reveals that productivity in the health service has actually declined, despite the huge injection of cash. …

The author of the King's Fund study, economist John Appleby, said the figures showed why hopes had been dashed that tens of billions of extra NHS spending would mean major improvements in frontline care. … productivity levels among GPs, consultants and nurses have nowhere near matched the scale of the increase in the NHS's funding in England.

There is a lot that jars in this report. It assumes all improvements in staff conditions and numbers were a waste, diverting money from patient care. What struck me most were the comments about productivity. Surely if we want to improve the quality of service we need to reduce productivity. Smaller class sizes reduce the productivity of teachers; if GPs see fewer patients in the same time, they are giving each patient more attention; lower case loads help social workers do a better job and may save lives. Reducing productivity can actually mean a far better experience for those that use services. What on earth is the benefit of stressed-out front-line staff dealing with more and more people, with insufficient time to do the job properly? Let those of us in the public sector fight for lower productivity to make more jobs and to serve the public better.

The Trap – 2

I thought that the second part of the latest Adam Curtis effort improved. It still conflated too many disparate things and used annoying presentation that took a long time to say very little.

However, it dealt adequately with the failure of targets as the latest management fad, inadequately with genetics, passably with the growth of inequality and simplistically with market theory. He even gave Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments a fleeting mention, a glimpse that there is more to the story than Game Theory and a mistaken attempt to increase human liberty. A false dawn? I shall now watch next week’s with a little less scorn.

Bialyshtok and Bloo-oom

I have to confess. I don’t like musicals. A perfectly reasonable drama gets under way only to be ruined when someone starts singing a trite song. Friends have taken me to them promising that this time I would like it. I frown disapprovingly through them all. Friday night saw the latest attempt. I went to see The Producers at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. This was even more unpromising as I love the 1968 film it was based on and have seen it dozens of times.

After two and a half hours of exuberant lunacy, I was laughing all the way home and can’t get the songs out of my head. To paraphrase one of the numbers, where did it go right? It was a parody of a parody and an even bigger parody of all the musicals in the world I have tried to dislike. It was bold, energetic, over the top, loud and brassy. Its humour was wild, anarchic, incorrect and unceasing. The dialogue that was lifted from the film did disappoint; no one could match Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder after all, but the songs were hilarious and the dance routines spectacular in their absurdity. Even the miscast Peter Kay camped it up to marvellous effect. My favourite moments were the singing Nazi pigeons and the tap dancing routine by the little old ladies with Zimmer frames.

Nothing is good unless there is a serious heart to it. Mel Brooks has often talked of humour as one way to combat evil with the joy of humanity. OK this is probably pretentious garbage but I have to find an excuse for enjoying a musical. Now I can truly say that I only hate musicals that take themselves too seriously.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

To intervene or not

Mahmood Mamdani has been a recent presence in the media arguing against a military intervention in Darfur. He elaborated on this in a long piece in the London Review of Books. I am not in the position to argue with him on the facts on the Sudan but I am concerned by the concluding remarks of the essay.

… peace cannot be built on humanitarian intervention, which is the language of big powers. The history of colonialism should teach us that every major intervention has been justified as humanitarian, a ‘civilising mission’. Nor was it mere idiosyncrasy that inspired the devotion with which many colonial officers and archivists recorded the details of barbarity among the colonised – sati, the ban on widow marriage or the practice of child marriage in India, or slavery and female genital mutilation in Africa. I am not suggesting that this was all invention. I mean only to point out that the chronicling of atrocities had a practical purpose: it provided the moral pretext for intervention.

The purpose of this is seems to be to de-legitimate intervention by associating it with imperial designs, which have nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of intervention. This is a familiar line of argument. The obvious objection, that the chroniclers of abuse may indeed be disinterested in anything other than the righting of wrongs and be human beings appalled by human cruelty, rather than sinister agents of imperial aims, is one that needs to be taken seriously. However, there is more to it than that. Whatever the motive for recording it, slavery and genital mutilation are, by any standards, an abomination and do not cease to be so simply because they are recorded by colonial officers. The victims are not fussy where their liberation comes from and it is often only global and regional powers that have the ability to act.

Humanitarian intervention is more frequently the language of the oppressed which the big powers ignore, a sentiment echoed by some bitter voices from Zimbabwe on Radio 4 this morning. Not only that, non-intervention is not some act of benign neutrality, it is always partisan. It ensures the victory of the strong.

That said, intervention can be self-serving and can fail. However, the record of non-intervention is permanently stained, not just by Bosnia and Rwanda, but by the deaths of fifty million consequent on the failures of the Rhineland, Abyssinia, Spain, and Czechoslovakia. There are painful judgements to be made, I was an opponent of the Iraq war though not of regime change, but our presumption should be towards action rather than inaction. The big question is always what form that intervention should take.

Mamdani may well be correct that an armed intervention could make the situation worse in Darfur. That is a judgement I am not qualified to make. However, when he moves from the specific to the general I am reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 essay, Peace and Violence. In it he argues that establishing peace by merely ensuring the absence of war is not sufficient. Instead a peace camp should raise its standard in opposition to violence of all kinds, especially the violence of a state against its own citizens. He wrote,

To achieve not just a brief postponement of the threat of war, but a real peace, a genuine peace erected on sound foundations, it is necessary to fight the `quiet', hidden forms of violence no less fiercely than the `noisy' kinds. The aim must be not only to stop the rockets and cannons, but also to set the limits of state violence at the threshold where the need to defend society's members ceases. The aim must be to outlaw from the human condition the very idea that some are permitted to use violence regardless of justice, law and mutual agreements.

Peace will then be served not by those who count upon the good nature of the men of violence, but by those who are incorruptible, unbending and tireless in their insistence on the rights of the persecuted, the oppressed and the murdered.

This widespread error of defining peace as 'anti-war' rather than `anti-violence' has naturally also led to a mistaken estimate of the role of certain politicians in the struggle for peace. The best fighter for peace comes to mean someone who collects laurels at airports and in parliaments, who will pay any price to ward off the breath of war…; who is prepared to make any concessions to gain a break in the press recriminations and create a breathing space for trade and pseudo-prosperity. On the other hand people who point out the global dangers to peace from all types of violence run the risk at times of being called `warmongers' - or at least will be called so behind their backs.

How prescient.


Just in case you had failed to notice issue 8 is now out. I am particularly interested in the pieces on Ernest Bevin. However, all of it looks as interesting as ever. Happy reading.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Churchill and anti-Semitism again

The issue of Churchill’s attitude towards Jews has arisen again. The Observer has printed an article, based on a press release, referring to,

… a 70-year-old document in which the future Prime Minister wrote that Jews may 'have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer', inviting terms of abuse such as 'Hebrew bloodsucker'.

The Observer had the sense to check by referring the document to Churchill’s official biographer, Martin Gilbert. His response was,

… the article was not written by Churchill at all, but rather his ghost writer, Adam Marshall Diston. He added that Churchill's instructions for the article were different in both tone and content from what Diston eventually wrote, and pointed out that Diston was a supporter of Oswald Mosley, the notorious fascist and anti-Semite. Churchill had stopped its publication in a newspaper.

This is reminiscent of an earlier post of mine on an article by Maleiha Malik, prompting an interesting, constructive and friendly email discussion with the author.

At heart is an approach to historical research, especially in areas that are well known, of seeking the sensational and privileging a single contrary document against a lengthy and established historical record. Malik had used a single article, but responsibly, placing it in the context of an anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik campaign in the Times. However, the same article had been misused by Neo-Nazis to validate the idea of a Jewish world conspiracy.

This technique always reminds me of confession evidence in miscarriages of justice where the single confession under duress overrules the hundreds of previous and subsequent denials. It makes for a good article but poor history. The problem is publicists love things like this, especially when a new book is due out, regardless of the views of the author. As for Churchill, his profound admiration of the Jews and life-long Zionism may have, at times, been tinged with the condescension and prejudice of the age, but he was no anti-Semite.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Hobsbawm and Spain again

Will has emailed me with a link that provides a much fuller critique of Hobsbawm's piece on intellectuals in the Spanish Civil War than my earlier post. Steven Schwartz's "Eric Hobsbawm's Stalinist Homage to Catalonia" places the emphasis on Catalan and Spanish scholarship and experience to take a libertarian left position on the war and to launch an attack on Hobsbawm. He concludes,

The Spanish knew so many things that Hobsbawm will never know – and above all, they know that while Orwell’s methods might not have guaranteed the victory of the Spanish Republic, those of Stalin and his admirers assured its defeat.

It is long but worth reading. The full article is here.

The future belongs to us

Never mind the various illuminati, aliens, Freemasons, Neo-cons, etc., etc. It is the fatties you have to watch out for. Our nefarious schemes are working. In twenty-five years we will be the majority. Then power unlimited will be ours. Watch out thinnies. Gillian McKeith will be the first into one of our force feeding camps and you may be next.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Trap

I have just watched the first Adam Curtis film in the new series. As always, it is a curious mix of the interesting and the overblown. The signs on this one are ominous though as it seems to be leading to the 'democracies are really tyrannies' argument, something that obscures a few empirical facts (like the failure to abolish elections, imprison your opponents, murder your rivals, commit genocide, etc.). However, we must wait and see.

Tonight was about 'freedom' but was really an assault on managerialism which was linked to, I kid you not, The Cold War, Game Theory, Public Choice, Friedrich Hayek and R D Laing. Phew!

The film did hint at, though not carry through, a critique of cynical thinking that has leaped the barrier into full blown paranoia, which I see as the root of much conspiracy theory. I liked that but Curtis' picture of market theory is a caricature and his view of managerialism is flawed.

How I hate managerialism! It torments the life out of me and has made much working life miserable, stifling initiative and damaging what it is supposed to promote. But Curtis really doesn't do it justice. It didn't begin with game theory. What were Stalin's 5-year plans after all? They were number and target driven all right. And this points to an important fact. Managerialism has never been about liberation. Only its most optimistic advocates saw it as rooted in some form of liberty. It is about control and is a system of domination. Its roots are to be found on the left and right. It is in Taylorism, in Fabian technocracy, Stalinism, as well as some aspects of 'market' thought that Curtis picks up on. This is what Hayek was writing against, not advocating. It is what Orwell opposed. It is what Braverman wrote about, and libertarians of left and right railed against. This isn't a curious by-product of ideas that promised more liberty, but a systematic attempt to impose central control for whatever purpose. It is about centralised authority breaking the power of the autonomous.

Right target Adam, wrong analysis.


I posted this before reading Norm's exquisite parody. He clearly has psychic powers as he described the programme I watched without having seen it.


Madeleine Bunting liked the programme. I knew I had been too kind about it.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

To deter is human

Oliver Kamm has a pop at CND again and the thrust of his argument is absolutely correct. The deployment of medium range missiles to Western Europe was about tying the US into the defence of Europe and securing a credible deterrent against the Soviet Union, just as he says. Kamm argues that CND got it badly wrong as,

… the anti-nuclear movement claimed that MX in the US, Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe and Trident for the UK were weapons designed to fight rather than deter a nuclear war.

The problem with Kamm’s analysis is that for a deterrent to be credible it has to be useable and thus nuclear weapons had indeed to be part of a war fighting strategy. ‘Massive retaliation’ simply was not credible. It was the equivalent of a suicide pact. The result was that NATO developed the strategy of ‘flexible response’. This accepted the assumed numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact’s conventional forces, but if there was a breakthrough by Soviet troops this would act as a ‘trip wire’ that would allow the first use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Whilst some of the anti-nuclear movement did misconstrue both Soviet and American intentions, the thoughtful critics of nuclear policy accepted that this strategy did indeed strengthen deterrence. Their concern was what would happen if deterrence failed. ‘Flexible response’ could have turned into the Schlieffen Plan for a nuclear age and become intensely dangerous, especially as ‘prevailing’ in a nuclear war necessarily meant being the first to attack. Kamm ignores this argument, though it is present in much of the anti-nuclear material of the 80’s.

This is far from being “intellectually disreputable”. It gets to the heart of the problem of deterrence theory. For a deterrent to be credible people have to be prepared to use it, yet if it is used its whole purpose will have failed and unleashed precisely what it is there to prevent. This is normally an acceptable risk, but the CND argument is that nuclear weapons are so overwhelmingly destructive that the risk undermines the effectiveness of deterrence and could possibly destroy human civilisation. It also places a reliance on human rationality that is not always borne out by experience. It is not enough simply to state that the weapons deployment was defensive and necessary, it is important to engage with the big question of the consequences of a possible failure caused by reckless, rather than rational, statesmen.

The house that Nikolai built

Just in case you ever doubt the human capacity for lunacy see here

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Free - to have fun

Peter Wilby lost a lot of my respect when he wrote an unpleasant review of ‘What’s Left?’, but his piece in Thursday’s Guardian was actually quite sane. He argues that “It isn't transport policy or education policy that hits poor people hardest. It's poverty.” He continued,

This may seem a very obvious point. But the right has spent the past 30 years trying to convince everybody that it isn't true. Even policies designed to tackle poverty directly are said to make it worse. The minimum wage, we were wrongly told, would destroy jobs. Welfare is said to rot character, or to trap people in poverty - a problem that could be easily solved by making many means-tested benefits universal or possibly, as political philosophers such as Columbia University's Brian Barry propose, introducing a basic subsistence income that everybody receives from the state.

Well some of the ‘right’, anyway. There are a number of loons who insist that a good dose of cutting welfare will give the poor the incentive to get off their arses and become self-reliant without actually spotting that the most enterprising might do that through robbing their mews cottage. I can only see the withdrawal of subsistence as an act of violence against the poor if unaccompanied by alternatives. But the idea of a citizen’s income is one that has had followers amongst libertarians and redistributionists alike. Brian Barry is from the social democratic left, building on Robert Theobald’s 1966 book, The Guaranteed Income: The Next Step in Economic Evolution?. But the scheme has also been supported by the likes of Milton Friedman, whilst the Centre for Policy Studies issued a pamphlet in 1984 on it (Stephen Davies: Beveridge Revisited: new foundations for tomorrow's welfare), and The Institute for Economic Affairs has published on it too. I believe that it is still Green Party policy.

Whilst libertarians would agree with Wilby that ‘the big state that the right so deplores could be a great deal smaller’ if the basic income eliminated the complex mire of income-related benefits and interventionary schemes and programmes, this is not the main argument that unites left and right libertarians.

The exercise of liberty can only be meaningful if it is without artificial constraint. Economic insecurity militates against risk, poverty incapacitates people, stripping them of even simple choices. Collective measures to ensure security liberate people in all kinds of different ways. At the moment the government is deeply wedded to the idea of conditionality, not only based on income but also on behaviour. In repeating its mantra of ‘no rights without responsibilities’ it is extending its power to attempt to shape behaviour to meet its own idea of what a ‘responsible’ citizen should be. Of course that idea is firmly middle class. It is working class attitudes and mores that are attacked – ‘they are fat’ – ‘they smoke’ – ‘look at their disgusting children with their hoodies’. This is nothing new. The following is a quote from a Devon fisherman about temperance campaigners, published in 1911,

There's a lot to be learnt in pubs, an' 'tis a fine affair, I reckon, for to hae a good chatter over a glass or two o' beer. If you didn't do that you'd go to bed an' sleep. An' that's all some o'em wants 'ee to do, seems so - work an' sleep - an' never enjoy no life.

The citizen’s income is certainly worth exploring and there are organizations like the Basic Income Earth Network and the Citizen's Income Trust promoting it. The attraction lies in the fact that it can be more than just an anti-poverty device, it can enhance liberty and let people enjoy a life – their life, the life they want to lead. They can have fun too.

The Uses of Literacy

Last week the Guardian commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy:

Fifty years ago this month, an obscure lecturer in Hull University's adult education department was surprised to find his opinions prominently displayed across the pages of several popular newspapers.

As an obscure lecturer in Hull University’s successor to the Adult Education Department, the Centre for Lifelong Learning, I felt a pang of pride. This post is not about the book, it is just to celebrate the fact that, unlike so many Adult Education departments, we are still here and, for the time being, thriving. The 80’s and 90’s were difficult decades for all Adult Education much was lost. With the election of Labour in 1997, many of whose leading lights owed their careers to Adult Education, I thought that at least the damage would stop. Instead it has continued apace. It is a disillusion and disappointment that I find hard to forgive.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Dance of the Sugar Plump Fairy

Apologies again for the lack of posts. Work has been very busy and that includes teaching a new Tuesday evening class. This meant that I missed the fatties night of the year. The Big Ballet started its UK tour in Hull.

All the way from Russia, this company has a minimum weight qualification for budding ballerinas - 17 stone. Brilliant. What role models.